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Who Will Build the Roads? You Tell Us.

We don’t live in a libertarian world, so when we talk to people about libertarianism we often have to appeal to their imagination. This is particularly true when it comes to fringe issues like roads, dispute resolution, and security. People could do this. People would have the incentive to do that. We may be convinced, but to most people it’s just a nice sounding theory until they’ve seen some evidence.

Fortunately, the evidence is out there and the stories are pretty interesting too. You might have heard of Mutual Aid societies in the early 20th century that provided cheap healthcare for the poor, or an LSD quality testing organization on Silk Road. But how many of these stories do you know offhand? How quickly can you find a list of legit, well researched examples? How many details do you know? For instance, you may have recently heard about Mike Watts, the small businessman who created his own private toll road in England, but did you know he offered a discount to parents of school children in the area? A useful tidbit for skeptics who are worried about predatory road companies.

What we need is a site where we can put all of these stories in one place. Well, it’s being built, and you can be a part of it. Introducing I Can’t Believe It’s Not Government. There are already a handful of stories started. If we all pitch in, we can add a lot more stories, and fill in all the interesting details.

To further illustrate the value of having such a resource, I wanted to take a look at one example area where real life stories make a difference.

Traffic Regulation

As libertarians we don’t always like to talk about regulation as positive, but like most people, we do want to encourage certain behaviors and discourage others. In a sense, we believe in voluntary regulation, and insurance companies are a great source of this sort of phenomenon. It’s often said that consumers are bad at assessing risks and making informed decisions. However, informed risk assessment is the specialty of insurance companies (and arguably with more incentive to do so accurately than the government).

For the protection of homeowners, the government may offer a one-size fits all regulation, banning houses along a coastline that are too likely to be damaged by high tides. Alternately, the government may allow the houses and just bail out the homeowners who get burnt. An insurance company may offer a more custom approach: giving the consumer a simple number, an insurance premium, that effectively allows them to make a decision about risks without having to know anything about the risk profile of that portion of the coast. In this way, home owners are regulated away from dangerous areas, unless they really want to pay for it.

However, this is a fairly blunt form of regulation. The sort of government regulation people often desire is more detailed than that. We need, many will say, a way to regulate the behavior of citizens, telling them, for instance, what driving habits to employ. We might say that insurance companies could do the same thing by tying the policy to certain behavior by the driver. But it’s much more powerful to point out that they already do. Many auto insurance companies these days offer programs that allow consumers to opt in to allowing their driving habits to be monitored. You might even argue that the opt-in aspect allows for a more intricate regulation than what the government could do without a public outrage. Of course as libertarians, given the current relationship companies tend to have with the government, this may not seem like such an attractive prospect. But it still gives us an indication of the sorts of steps insurance companies in a free world would be willing to take to encourage safer habits.

Just as any company pushes to lower the cost of their products and services, insurance companies want to keep their premiums low. One way to keep premiums low is to influence consumer behavior, as described above. Another way is to influence the producers of the products that the consumers are insuring. And again, there is a real-life example of this, in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), who is known for crash testing cars and publishing safety ratings for consumers to use.

As libertarians, we shouldn’t necessarily have a problem with road rules on private roads. A skeptical person might be concerned with the possibility of poorly designed or disparate road rules among many small road companies who don’t have the resources to research effectiveness of different traffic rules. Well, perhaps insurance companies would have the incentive to do that research, and could then offer lower premiums for customers who don’t patronize roads that don’t follow their recommendations. Sounds like a nice theory, but we have some evidence here as well. One lesser known activity of the IIHS is to research effective traffic rules.

Other Examples

Traffic regulation is just one area where people tend to expect the government to help. With enough research, we can start to paint a similar picture in other areas.

Disaster relief? Bring up Occupy Sandy, or the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (don’t let the name fool you). Ambulance services in poor neighborhoods? Check out the Bed-Stuy Volunteer Ambulance Corps. What about network neutrality, how can consumers get a choice in ISPs with the natural monopoly of infrastructure? How about circumventing the whole thing entirely with a mesh network like they did in Athens, Greece.

We’ve started collecting lots of interesting details, but there are a lot of gaps left to be filled in. You might find success stories right here on Bitcoin Not Bombs, who was gracious enough to let me post about this project. Helping the disadvantaged is definitely on the list of things people want the government to do. If there’s enough objective evidence for the success of Sean’s Outpost or Hoodie The Homeless to convince a skeptic, we want to hear about it.

Do you know a story that could push the point home further? Check out the site, you could make a difference.

By the way, you can catch my recent interview on Declare Your Independence with Ernest Hancock, talking about the site. You can also follow along on Twitter and Google Plus. (Facewhat?)